For four decades, Denverites invoked Father Woody’s name as they cared for tens of thousands of people without homes or food.
The local legend, formally known as Father Charles Woodrich, died in 1991 but his legacy remained in annual giveaways to the poor, in one of Denver’s largest homeless shelters, in programs administered by Denver’s Catholic university and in a day shelter for those who are hungry.
That legacy of Denver’s so-called “patron of the poor” was obliterated Tuesday when Woodrich was named as a child sex abuser in a report spearheaded by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. Woodrich, according to the report, molested three boys between the ages of 12 and 16 in the 1970s and 1980s while he served as the pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in downtown Denver. The priest plied two of the boys with alcohol and asked another to pose in his underwear and took pictures of him, according to the report.
The revelation has forced a reckoning among the institutions that invoke his name in their work.
“He wasn’t the saint that everybody wants to make him out to be,” one of Woodrich’s victims told The Denver Post on Tuesday.
The man, contacted through his attorney and listed as Woodrich’s “Victim #1″ in the report, spoke on the condition he not be publicly identified, citing the stigma attached to the assault. The Denver Post does name survivors of sexual assault without permission.
The man was 12 years old and an altar server when Woodrich began grooming him in 1983. For the next six years, Woodrich molested the boy once or twice a month, often in the priest’s residence, according to the man and the report. Woodrich befriended the boy’s family and used alcohol and paid jobs around the parish to groom him.
The man didn’t tell anybody, he said. Woodrich was a well-known and beloved priest and he didn’t think anybody would believe him. His family still doesn’t know.
“At the time, I felt so isolated because I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t have anywhere to go to, anywhere to turn to,” he said. “Not even my mother. She’s a single mother raising four kids, she had to worry about that, it wasn’t easy for her. I couldn’t put that kind of pressure on her.”
But the abuse derailed his life, he said. He acted out. He became involved in criminal mischief and experienced homelessness — becoming part of the population that Woodrich built his name on by helping. Now almost 50 years old, he’s still angry about what Goodrich did to him.
“I’ve never had a normal relationship,” he said. “I’ve never had a relationship last more than a couple months at a time. A lot of loneliness. A lot of missed opportunities. I didn’t want my family to know, so I was alone.”
Woodrich had an extensive career at the Archdiocese of Denver. Originally from New York, Woodrich joined the priesthood in 1953 and over the next 38 years he pastored two churches, led communications for the Denver archdiocese, served as editor of the Denver Catholic Register and was chosen to escort Mother Theresa on her two visits to Denver.
He is credited with co-founding the Samaritan House, one of Denver’s largest shelters for people without homes, and is remembered for opening Holy Ghost Catholic Church to the homeless on cold nights. A day shelter founded by some of his former parishioners after his death was called Father Woody’s Haven of Hope. For nearly 40 years, nonprofits have thrown a Christmas party and a cash giveaway for low-income families in his name. Regis University, a Jesuit Catholic institution, named one of its continuous volunteer projects the “Father Woody Programs.”
Now, all of those groups are reckoning with the fallout.
“Due to these credible allegations, we have rechristened our service program to honor our Jesuit namesake, St. John Francis Regis, who toiled to serve the poor and needy,” Regis University spokeswoman Jennifer Forker said. “The name has changed but the mission has not.”
Officials with the Archdiocese of Denver said in a statement that they would remove the name of any priest identified in the report from any honorary designations, including buildings and programs.
“It is important to note that the ministerial work of the Church is the work of Jesus Christ, not the work of a specific priest,” officials said in the statement. “Any employee or volunteer who has participated in the work of Christ in serving others should not feel that their work has in any way been diminished.”
Haven of Hope leaders on Tuesday said they removed Woodrich’s name from their organization earlier this year after learning the priest was being investigated. The nonprofit also on Tuesday removed a page from their website with a brief biography of Woodrich.
“The only thing that matters is the work we are doing,” the organization said in a statement posted on Facebook. “We must protect the work at all costs so it can continue. With that said we have always strived to be a Haven of Hope, this won’t change.”
Catholic Charities, which runs the Samaritan House shelter, also did not respond to an email.
Woodrich being publicly named as an abuser brought great relief to at least one of his victims. The man abused by Woodrich beginning in 1983 said that was his main goal for approaching officials about the priest, though he also received money through the reparations program.
“They’re no longer going to have this shining light,” he said. “And I know he was a huge impact and some people might say that work was the greater good, considering what he did from the homeless and the poor. My mom was one of those people. And he took advantage of us.”
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